We all know that pirates and peasants and other people of bygone historical eras liked to get wasted just as much as we do in 2015. Kings swilled wine, blacksmiths downed beer, and seamen guzzled rum. But what we're less sure of is whether the booze that they were filling their goblets and pitchers with was "just like ours!", or if they were experiencing flavors and potencies unknown to our modern drinking sensibilities.
In 2011, some curious excavators of a Baltic Sea shipwreck decided to have professional beer tasters sample a 19th-century brew that they came across, and found that, unsurprisingly, "it did taste very old ... with some burnt notes." Discovered near the Åland Islands by the coast of Finland, the beer was more than 170 years old—making it the oldest sample of drinkable beer on record.
The divers also handed over some samples to a group of scientists for analysis, who have just published their findings in the American Chemical Society's Journal of Agricultural & Food Chemistry. Although the beer had been diluted by exposure to seawater, it was intact enough that the team at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and the Technical University of Munich were able to get to the bottom of its content. And because it was well-preserved by the cold, dark conditions of the seafloor and still fizzy upon being opened, they knew that the cultures within were still active.
As mentioned above, the initial taste was less than heavenly. The bacteria and yeast that had been trapped inside for centuries had created elevated ratios of organic acid, creating flavors described as "vinegary, goaty, and soured milk[-like]." But through testing, the scientists were able to determine that there were multiple varieties of beer on-board in the assortment of bottles, with varying "hoppiness," though it wasn't clear whether they were brewed entirely from barley or contained some wheat as well.
A Finnish beer company called Stallhagen Brewery also assisted the quest to replicate the beer by using the same yeast and process that they gleaned from the well-preserved bottles found in the wreck to create new analogs. Likening it to a contemporary pale ale, the brewers say that it's actually very similar to a beer that you would drink today—which will hopefully make it sellable once the process, which has now been underway for several years, is complete.
In the same wreck, they also discovered 168 bottles of Veuve Clicquot and Juglar Champagne (now worth tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars each), which were promptly sampled by the divers themselves (first dibs, duh) and then brought to sommelier Ella Grussner Cromwell-Morgan. She described a "freshness" to the wine, despite its intimidating age, and actually found it very sweet and likely made with more sugar than contemporary wines.
Cromwell-Morgan also claimed that "it wasn't debilitated in any way. Rather, it had a clear acidity which reinforced the sweetness." She described notes of "lime blossoms, coffee, [and] chanterelles," and argued that its attributes definitively pointed toward having been stored in oak casks (prior to its trip to the bottom of the Baltic Sea, that is). A Bloomberg journalist who was also permitted to taste them described the Juglar as lacking in fizziness, but "deep and rich with notes of orange and raisin, like a Christmas cake."
So when Stallhagen's replica of shipwrecked beer makes it to the market, it may be palatable. But if you can scrounge up the big bucks for a bottle of long-forgotten Veuve, it will probably taste a hell of a lot better.